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County pilots deconstruction alternative to demolition

Two men in construction gear work outside a partially torn apart house structure.
June 4, 2018

NRRI researchers are helping two social enterprises find value in abandoned homes.

“The mission of the organizations touches me personally, and that makes the research I provide especially satisfying." - Victor Krause

A project near and dear to NRRI researchers finally came close to home last month.

For a number of years now, NRRI’s materials specialists have been working with two social enterprises – one in Minneapolis and one in Bemidji – on an alternative to demolition and landfilling of abandoned homes. Now St. Louis County is conducting a pilot project to test this alternative on tax-forfeited properties.
The alternative is deconstruction… and the benefits are numerous.

Both Better Futures Minnesota and Miigwech Aki (“Thank You, Earth”) are programs that train workers how to carefully dismantle old buildings to save the valuable materials for recycling and resale. The overarching goal is to give job skills, safety training and a good paycheck to help improve their lives.

“The mission of the organizations touches me personally,” said NRRI Scientist Victor Krause, “and that makes the research I provide especially satisfying. I’m very glad this method is starting to get the state-wide attention it deserves.”

Krause and his team have four goals with this effort:
• Examine the deconstruction methods to optimize the value of recovered materials and safety of the workers
• Identify the various species of wood recovered to better assign value to the materials
• Teach workers to turn reclaimed wood into value-added products, like benches and table tops
• Quantify the environmental benefits of diverting the materials from landfills

Compared to demolition, deconstruction of a building can divert more than 85 percent of the materials harvested. Better Futures uses a conversion model created by the Environmental Protection Agency to estimate the environmental impact of deconstruction versus demolition and landfilling. They found that reclamation of a typical house (37 tons of material) offsets 103 tons of carbon dioxide.

“Of course, the results depend on the age and condition of the structure,” Krause said. “But, for example, most buildings constructed before 1940 have rough sawn lumber which is valued higher than modern dimensional lumber.”

The older wood is sought by crafters and furniture builders due to its naturally aged appearance. Krause and his team offer technical support to properly train the workers to ensure that the removal of the materials is done in a way that retains as much value as possible.

Markets for the materials include reusing as it was intended – framing components or hardwood flooring – or niche markets like craft picture frame manufacturers, bench and table top builders, artists and homeowners.

St. Louis County is deconstructing four tax-forfeited homes in this pilot program to determine if it makes sense to adopt deconstruction on a wider scale. This effort funded by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund established with Minnesota State Lottery proceeds.